Imagine your first day at a new job. You are sitting in a room with four other new hires. On the surface, you project confidence despite the uncomfortable tightness of your new shirt. On the inside, you’re a nervous mess with butterflies aflutter in your stomach.

After half an hour of this, the manager finally shows up. With a smile on her face, she tells the group that the first month will be a competition: “We will evaluate based on performance and only three people will be hired, the rest will go home. Good luck.”

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How would you feel? Would you walk away from this job?

No, this is not an early first draft of the Hunger Games, but comes from an opinion piece from The Straits Times on how to achieve good service in Singapore.

If you haven’t read it, enlighten yourself here. After lamenting about his half-filled water glass, the writer suggested that we motivate our service staff with a “survival test” to eliminate weaker employees: Tell five average workers only the best three will remain. The remaining three will will then be given a pay rise of about 30 per cent each, which is a strong enough motivation to improve.

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In other words, he wants to copy Trump and make every restaurant a reality show.

I’m no human resource expert, but I doubt removing job security, camaraderie and cooperation from the workplace will improve service standards. I also doubt if any establishment can function if everyone sees everyone else as a mortal threat.

Even if intense competition could improve service, the scheme is completely unfeasible in Singapore, where the demand for labour dramatically outstrips supply. According to The Straits Times, our country already faces a severe labour crunch in the service sector. If some manager does implement a Battle Royale at his bistro, the employees will most likely flee his dictatorship for a more humane regime at the bar next door.

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Does this mean that our service standards will stagnate at the current level? Not necessarily. It is true that service quality is not a trivial matter if Singapore aspires to be a world-class destination, but there are surely ways of achieving this without recourse to a Survivor-style challenge.

Stephanie Ong, 22, who has worked as a waitress for two years, agrees that there is room for improvement in the service industry. However she attributes the shortcomings to various factors – not merely poor service culture.

“It can be poor staff training, inflexible management, lack of manpower, just to name a few,” she said. “You can’t blame everything on the staff for not trying hard enough.”

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To improve service, she suggests that management motivate their employees more and allow room for mistakes so they can learn. At a more impersonal level, it is also a matter of tweaking the outlet operations to make the system more efficient.

Marc Emmanuel, an ex-waiter who is currently serving national service, offers a different perspective.

“I don’t think that Singapore has poor service in general. Personally, I’ve never encountered any colleagues who were rude to customers, and the worst thing I’ve done is to leave a customer unattended,” he explained, “But this only happens when an establishment is understaffed, as most of those I’ve worked in tended to be.”

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In his view, service could be improved if the staff were allowed to keep their tips and if the management offered a workplace environment that feels more like family.

“After all, a sense of comfort is important because you spend more time with your colleagues than you do your friends and family,” he said.

From a manager’s perspective, good service can be just as complicated. Shan Lee, in her 30s, manages the Sahara Bar and Restaurant at Boat Quay. She thinks that good communication is what’s lacking.

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“A lot of service staff are part-timers, and very young. Because of that, they’re not really comfortable speaking or communicating with customers,” she explained. “That’s why it’s important to make them feel comfortable and familiar.”

For her part, she eases them into the role by letting the new staff shadow her on the job. She also builds their confidence by introducing them to the outlet’s regular customers.

“I also try to minimise the hierarchy so any issues can be raised and resolved quickly,” she elaborated.

Despite differing ideas on how to improve service, those whom The Pride spoke to agreed we have a long way to go before Singapore’s service can match, say, Japan. However, achieving great service is not just a matter of sheer will or determination, as many seem to imagine. Achieving such a service standard will require a change of mindset from service staff and customers alike.

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For service staff, they need to disabuse themselves of the notion that the industry offers easy money for minimal effort.

“Most people think that it’s an easy job, but it isn’t. You really need a customer-oriented attitude,” said Shan.

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Meanwhile, customers also need to understand that there is more to service than just obeying their every whim.

“The customer may always be right, but there’s more to service than just responding to the customer’s every beck and call.” Marc explained. “They fail to realise there’s so much more on the waiter’s plate than just taking orders.”

Sometimes, it’s really just a matter of communicating these limitations, in order to appeal to the customer for patience and understanding. As Stephanie says: “I take pride in everything I do despite the constraints, we just need the customers to know that we’re doing our best to serve them well.”

So perhaps there’s a simpler solution to the ST writer’s complaint about poor service. Instead of hiring five waiters to battle it out, why not just hire three new staff members and use the extra money to train them well? I’m sure they’ll thank you for this small kindness, and so would your customers.

Top Image: The Pride